Miss Saigon, Part Deux: Watching PLATOON and FULL METAL JACKET Back-to-Back

So.

We had a movie-fest as part of our Miss Saigon research that involved a night of watching clips of: First Blood, Rambo: First Blood II, The Green Berets, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, The Deerhunter, Heaven and Earth, and Vietnam: A Television History. I thought it would be a fun night–there was cooking and wine and pizza and everything–but somehow, it was kind of a bummer. Imagine that.

The day after, I watched the whole of Full Metal Jacket and Platoon. I had never seen either, and somehow was surprised that the former came out after the latter–was, in fact, Kubrick’s penultimate film. It seemed like it must have been older, too big, too important to have only come out in 1987 (though that is almost 20 years ago). And it makes sense–watching Full Metal Jacket made me feel that there’s no reason to ever make another movie about American soldiers during Vietnam–if it had come out before, Platoon never would have seen the light of day.

In American theater theory, there is an established (in fact, canonical, though of course any practicioner can poke a million holes in it) divide: that which is Brechtian, and that which is Stanislavskian. This was initially applied more directly to academic deconstructions of acting theory, but has long become a more general trope. By Stanislavskian, academics generally actually mean “Strassbergian” or “Method,” and are often sloppy about making that distinction. But what does it mean?

It’s hard to be brief about this, as it has characterized much of the debate about American theater for the past decades, but I’ll try.

The latter, the “Method,” (as the trope goes…) is that which believes in acting, or theater, as being a delivery mechanism for a certain kind of emotional experience. You, as the actor, to disappear into the character, “be” the character, experience his emotions. When the audience witness this experience, witness you actually experiencing the emotions, they will have a mimetic emotional experience, feel what you’re feeling; and undergo catharsis, an emotional payoff.

Brecht thought this was very bad–for the audience to come in, sit back, and sail through a passive, delivered emotional experience. Instead, he believed in theater that made the familiar strange by putting a story in a heightened sociopolitical context. This applied to acting as well–instead of pretending to “be” the character, you instead are a sort of actor-reporter. This had a major impact on the American experimental theater of the 1960s and the performance art that followed–which promoted the awareness that you are the actor and the audience is present as the audience and you are performing for them.

This is a much larger discussion, of course, to be attacked historically, theoretically, in terms of craft. I mean, Stanislavksi’s technique and pursuits are different than Strassberg’s mistranslation of such things into “Method” with its emphasis on emotional recall. Strassberg destroyed a generation of American actors–and American theater itself, which followed a downward spiral of living room naturalism and stifled performance that stifled the magic of theater at its core.

Academics, or more likely, performance theorists, like to make Brecht=good and Stanislavksi=bad in simplistic fashion doesn’t take into account the abstraction of high melodrama or the emotionality Brecht uses or the difference between what actual performer craft requires for a flexible instrument and what said instrument is put in service of onstage. And both end up with dangerous fall-out over what it means for something to be “the real” or “the authentic.”

I bring this whole kettle of fish up only appropos of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Because, for all that it’s a shopworn spine of theory that must be constantly taken apart–the two movies, set side by side, prove it. They are almost perfect exemplars of the two extremes as characterized by theater academics: Platoon as Strassberg, sentimentality, emotionality, the mimetic experience; Full Metal Jacket as Brecht–cold, politically astute, narratively disjointed so that each section or scene is highlighted, violent.

As someone who associates Oliver Stone with Natural Born Killers, I was shocked to see that in the earlier part of his career, he just wanted to be Spielberg. Platoon is pure melodrama, its assiduously recreated verité compromised by a chiaschuoro set-up and subsequent unfoldings: innocent Chris (Charlie Sheen), an impossibly fresh-faced white kid, lands in a war zone, and is caught between two fathers: Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), a hopelessly bitter man whose filter against evil has disintegrated years ago, big scar on his face in case you missed the point, who wants nothing but the death of Jesus–er, I mean, Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe).

Jesus–sorry, Elias–is cool. He hangs out with the black soldiers, smoking dope and playing soul records, is the model of fairness and kindness and good management, and, per Rambo, really knows the jungle*; while Barnes plays cards with his whitey hicks listening to uptight country music and is great at killing people and dropping favors to his lackeys. Evil Barnes attempts to kill Saintly Elias, who finally dies as Jesus in a hail of enemy gunfire, and our hero, Chris, flips to the dark side (“I am your father, Luke”) by killing Barnes in a post-battle moment of revenge madness.

At the end, as Chris is being airlifted out of hell and into a hospital, his voiceover tells us he continues to fight between Barnes and Elias, between good and evil–and that battle is within himself. You don’t say.

Platoon is sentimental, deals in stereotype, and ultimately attempts to take the political and make it personal, squeeze the entire Vietnam War into the emotional experience of one man, our hero, an obvious stand-in for Stone. The infuriating “Making Of” featurette that accompanied the DVD amplified the problematics: it tells, in parallel, the story of the Vietnam War with the story of the making of Platoon, divided into sections like and “Deployment” and “Coming Home,” the actors discussing the true hardships of the intensive boot camp they underwent, as if the two experiences could be considered equivalent.

A year later, we have Full Metal Jacket, which must have blasted a hole in Stone’s head when it came out. Pauline Kael thought it an atrociously dehumanized kraftwerk that showed just how cut off Stanley Kubrick had become from any connection to people.

It is purely Brechtian. Everything, every moment is politically contextualized, heightened in its theatricality. Buffoonery and brutality are used in equal measure. The narrative is broken from plot causality (a leads to b) and into scenic events that force the audience to constantly question itself, which side it is on. The audience has to make the movie, connect the dots, work, constantly. The images are entirely uncomfortable. It’s a Vietnam “Mann Ist Mann,showing how a man can become a machine, how an elephant is an elephant.

And I agree to some extent with Kael (she’s always so spot on**), but it somehow seems so appropriate to the material (as opposed to Eyes Wide Shut, where that disconnection had become just embarrassing). Maybe I’m a sucker for his “moviemaking carried to a technical extreme to the reach for supreme control of his material,” maybe I located too much humanity in certain segments he puts forward: the camaraderie of the soldiers, the angular discomfort of the hooker about to be gang-banged, the final sequence, where the soldiers are confused and keep losing each other and making mistakes, Joker’s dry, survivalist humor.

Kael’s criticisms perhaps are apt, however, now that I think about it. Because Stanislavski vs. Brecht, Platoon vs. Full Metal Jacket aside, neither came close to watching Vietnam: A Television History–which I also viewed, not in its entirety, but quite a bit of. There, the simple reporter-like descriptions–even from the soldiers themselves describing, in completely unemotional, matter-of-fact fashion, the heightened sense of excited awareness punctuated by stretches of total boredom–were far more provocative than any of Stone’s histrionics or Kubrick’s clever constructions. They made both films seem so hollow, so artificial–so pointless, almost.

And into what category does that go? What does that say about art’s ability to ever capture or communicate experience in construction as opposed to “the real” of constructed documentary? Why do neither movie cut it next to the documentary?

*Isn’t it funny that one’s understanding of nature signifies”goodness” and “purity”? Can we put this one aside to ponder at a future date?

**HH, whereever you are, that copy of For Keeps is one of the most useful gifts I have ever received from anyone–it just keeps on giving.

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